An American visitor to the UK’s Conservative party conference this month gawped and pointed. “There’s the prime minister, taking selfies,” he cried. “He’s just . . . walking around. Anyone can go up to him!” As Boris Johnson did the “grip and grin” circuit with his fans, surrounded by a small gaggle of guards, the man wistfully said, “there’s no way this could happen in America.”
The scene captured the understated nature of British politicians compared with the security-heavy walkabouts of their US counterparts. Until recent decades, MPs did not have dedicated staff or an office of their own. They still roam the streets of Westminster and their constituencies scarcely noticed, often without aides. Only a handful of the most senior of ministers are given full police protection.
All MPs, whether prime minister or new backbencher, hold constituency surgeries. Roughly once a week, every member of the House of Commons returns to meet their voters in cold church halls, small village libraries, cafés and community centres. As the social-care function of MPs has grown so, too, has the importance of these meetings.
The first brutal challenge to this system in decades came on June 16 2016. Labour MP Jo Cox was leaving her surgery in Yorkshire when she was murdered by a far-right terrorist. Last Friday, when Sir David Amess was stabbed to death while sitting in an Essex church, was a potentially lethal assault on the innocence of how Britain does politics.
The tragic deaths of Cox and Amess — with a handful of other attacks in surgeries — in these very ordinary constituency settings highlights what British politics risks losing. Both MPs were devoted local champions, in love with the towns that elected them and readily available to their voters. Their politics have may been far apart, but the pair represented the best of parliamentary democracy.
After the two killings, however, change is inevitable. Priti Patel, the UK home secretary, is mulling over plans to tighten security, including police protection at surgeries, pre-booked appointments and airport-style checks. The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who was assaulted during the Tory party conference, agrees police protection is needed but insists access to MPs must be preserved. “Whilst I am sure it is possible to get better security, particularly at our surgeries, nothing should come between us and our constituents”, he wrote at the weekend.
Another option is to hold surgeries in MPs’ offices, where vetting is tighter. This is easy in geographically small urban seats, but tricky in large rural constituencies. Some, like the Tories’ Tobias Ellwood, think all surgeries should go virtual, as they did during the pandemic.
There is no single reason for the attacks, but there will be questions for the British state, given that the 25-year-old arrested over Amess’ killing had reportedly been referred to the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme (it’s unknown whether he engaged with it). Lone-wolf attacks are the most difficult for the security services to thwart. MPs are already lining up to ask whether Prevent, run by cash-strapped local councils, should be re-examined.
The UK’s political discourse is also coarsening. The temperature of debate has risen dramatically over the past six years, through the Brexit referendum and its messy fall out, and two general elections. MPs of all stripes say their inboxes and social media streams have become cesspits of bile. One senior Labour MP says, “reading everything that comes my way, it barely makes you feel human”.
Social media platforms have much to answer for in allowing anonymous trolls to use toxic, often violent language against politicians. Amess, a rightwing pro-Brexit Tory, was widely respected by his opponents as a kind, humorous man — just the sort of person who should be in parliament. Such people must not be turned off politics in the future.
But the solution should not rest upon curtailing MPs’ interactions with their voters. Those who criticise politicians for being out of touch miss the point that their regular surgeries make them more in touch than most realise. Change is needed to save the system but the constituency link is the most precious jewel in Britain’s democracy. It must be preserved.
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